Scott Tuma

Hard Again (Truckstop)

As the lead guitarist for Chicago's revered altcountry pioneers Souled American, Scott Tuma created a signature sound of reverb-drenched atonal twang. His licks were expressive and rhythmically awkward -- more atmospheric than lyrical -- and served as a wonderful foil to Joe Adducci's slippery bass lines. Together, the pair wrapped pitch-perfect traditional country music in ragged dissonance, a radical idea that both cursed them to obscurity and earned them a rabid clutch of fans.

In the early '90s, after recording several critically acclaimed albums for Rough Trade Records and touring with the likes of Camper Van Beethoven, the group slowed down -- both musically and careerwise. Rough Trade went kaput, so Souled American moved to the German label Moll and released a series of unheralded albums so starkly unhurried and barren that many supporters left the band behind.

Five years removed from the last Souled American LP, Notes Campfire, Tuma has released Hard Again, a collection of mellow instrumentals that brings his guitar playing to the fore with the gentle chaos of a baby's first steps. Featuring only a smattering of other instruments -- an uncredited accordion, some percussion, and assorted car horns -- Tuma's music evokes the burnished glow of sunrise after a sleepless night.

While not as slow as the most recent Souled American releases, Hard Again's pace is slack and its mood is murky. Treading similar ground as master drunken instrumentalist act Dirty Three (whose drummer Jim White adds percussion to a few of these tracks), Tuma strums his guitar with a lazy grace, letting his notes drift in and out of phase, unobstructed by lyrics or melody. Without the drama of a lead instrument like the Dirty Three's violin or the vocals of Souled American's plaintive, bleating singer Chris Grigoroff, Tuma's pieces wander wide -- more akin to Ry Cooder's expansive Paris, Texas soundtrack than a Hank Williams heartbreaker.

In typical oblique Chicago indie style, Hard Again's packaging is unadorned with information, cloaked in brown and barely labeled, standing in monochromatic opposition to the colorful and dreamy music inside. Yet such attempts to recline from view shouldn't stifle the attention that Tuma deserves as a wrangler of stunning, mangled beauty.

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